Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.
Disregarding a heavy coating of slush on our backyard pond yesterday, 11 Wood Ducks and a pair of Hooded Mergansers spent most of the afternoon there. I was sitting just inside our back storm door, taking photos through the glass of the birds coming to our feeders when the ducks arrived. Sometimes what you want most actually is given. I wanted duck and merganser drakes in the same photo frame. They're our most beautiful waterfowl in my book. And so, they gave me this. The birds mostly ignored each other, but when a Wood Duck got into the merganser's personal space, brief threats were given.
Boreal and Great Gray owls, the two species that have made birding in Minnesota particularly exciting this winter, are in retreat. Most seem to have left the area, heading north to their usual territories. Additional birds are being found dead, thought to be victims of starvation. The birds came south to find food. These owls hunt rodents that move beneath the snow cover. The crusty snow we have now has made hunting difficult. The birds can sense the mice, shrews, and voles, but can't break through the crust to make a capture. Two readers were fortunate enough to have Boreal Owls in their yards. The first photo comes from Will Stenberg of Duluth. The owl has a mouse in its grip. This might be the best Boreal Owl photo I've seen: owl, snow, prey. Wish I had taken it. The second comes from Sadie Ellingson of Elk River, another fine photo. Ms. Ellingson's bird spent at least 12 hours perched in a tree just outside her kitchen window. She first saw the bird at 7 o'clock in the morning, and watched it leave as the sun was setting.
The season for trips to find Pine Grosbeaks and Bohemian Waxwings seems to have pretty much ended. I track this through posts to the Minnesota birding email network run by the Minnesota Ornithologists; Union. Either the birds have moved back north or everyone who wanted to see them, and then posted results of their search, has done so. (Sometimes, if you search for birds to expand your list it becomes seen one, seem ‘em all, and travel slows.)
My guess is the birds are far fewer here right now. The winter finches that crowded our feeders each day for the past couple of months certainly are somewhere else. We had dozens of Common Redpolls and Pine Siskins mixed with our usual American Goldfinches and House Finches. I filled our feeders – eight tubes, one platform, and two on our patio door – twice a week. It’s been a week since I last did that, and all the feeders remain half full. A birder wrote recently on another email network, BirdChat, that finches move from place to place day to day. They are not feeder loyal. Ours have gone somewhere, no birds yet replacing them. We have a handful of goldfinches and House Finches, that’s all.
I hoped but didn’t believe that Bohemian Waxwings would make it as far south as the metro area. They didn’t as far as I know. Pine Grosbeaks mostly got no farther south than mid-state. A friend began a grosbeak/waxwing trek a few weeks ago, beginning in Chisago County and working his way west to Wadena and Todd counties. He keeps lists by county, and this being/having been an exceptional year for sightings of those species, off he went from his Rochester home. Lots of miles, yes, but he had a good time.
Friend Bob found them in Kanabec County, which is pretty close to us. I figured it was worth a chance and some driving. I headed north on Highway 169, skipping Elk River and Princeton as search sites, beginning a block-by-block canvas for ornamental crab apple trees in Milaca. Both the grosbeaks and the waxwings are most easily found in those trees, feeding on apples.
I found Pine Grosbeaks in Milaca, Garrison, and Aitkin. I found a pair of Bohemian Waxwings in Garrison. I took unsatisfactory photos of the waxwings. I had better luck with grosbeaks in Moose Lake on an earlier visit. The birds I photographed were females. Thinking back, I decided all the grosbeaks I had seen – two or three dozen – were females. I didn’t give that a thought until friend Betsy Beneke, naturalist at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, became curious about the same thing. She wrote the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, looking for an answer. She shared this with email list members.
Turns out it was likely I was seeing both females and males. I just couldn’t tell one from the other. The grosbeaks moving south tend to be almost exclusively females and first-year males. The latter look just like their moms. It’s assumed that each nesting pair of grosbeaks raise two viable young per year, the number needed to maintain a stable population. Assume one is male, the other female. Of the four birds in that family, only one looks like a male. If the pair has a very good nesting season and produces four surviving young, they and their mother look alike, and only one bird in six, the adult male, has male plumage.
Plus, the southern edge of any irruption – winter movement south – usually is dominated by young birds, all of which look female. Adults stay north, particularly adult males. This, said the folks at Cornell, is true of most species that occasionally move south, say into Minnesota in interesting numbers. It explains why most of the Snowy Owls found in Minnesota show the mottled black and white plumage of young birds. Rare is the sighting of a truly white, a snowy Snowy Owl. And so my photos prove.
One more brief owl note: Boreal Owls were being seen in unusual numbers in Duluth and north along Old Highway 61. One fellow saw seven in one day, which might be a record. He’s a professional bird guide. He called his day on the North Shore his best birding day ever. Boreals were easy to find. They were perched in trees along Highway 61 and other roads, visible without problem. I want to know how many Boreal Owls were not hunting along roadways. How many were back in the woods, off road, out of sight? When irruptions happen we see the obvious birds, those coincidentally where birders look (and few leave the road to tramp the woods). How many of these birds are really here?
Below, male and female goldfinches. The males, bright yellow and black in breeding season, show soft yellow in the winter. Some of them already have a yellow body feather or two as the spring molt begins. Females wear drab plumage throughout.
Bald Eagles are returning to and refurbishing old nests or building new ones right now according to email reports from around the metro area. One of the new nests is located on the east side of I-35E,just south of the merge with I-35-W. Another is along the east side of I-494 about a half mile north of the Highway 5 junction.
Great Horned Owls are on their nests, incubating eggs. They breed and hatch early to give the young birds as much time as possible to mature and learn to hunt before they will be on their own come next winter.
In our yard this morning: A cardinal singing its spring song, first for me this “spring.” Chickadees have been whistling their courtship song for several days. Also heard this morning were calls from White-breasted Nuthatch and Downy Woodpecker. Spring songs are triggered not by weather but by our growing amount of daylight.
Crows in our neighborhood also were calling this morning, but crows talk year around.
Occasionally you see a bird without tail feathers. Chances are the bird lost feathers instead of its life by a lucky escape from a predator. When will the feathers grow back? Is replacement immediate or does it take place with the next molt?
A member of the birding email list BirdChat asked that question a few days ago. Several other list members provided the answer: the feathers grow back ASAP. The delay would come only if the attack caused wounds that needed to heal.
Tail feathers would be replaced automatically in one of the bird’s seasonal molts. But they’re so important to flight control that regrowth begins immediately.
Any waiting period as wounds heal is apt to be short because the bird probably will die first. If the attack draws blood as well as feathers the wounds are infection-prone. Predators’ claws almost always contain septic material – bacteria – that are highly likely to create a fatal infection.
One BirdChat responder told a great story. A birder in England and a friend were using a large live trap to capture birds for banding. A Eurasian Collared-Dove lacking tail feathers was caught. Banded and released, it walked back into the trap. A pattern developed. Released in the evening to go to roost, the dove returned to the trap every morning until tail feathers had been fully replaced. The bird seemed to understand that in the trap it was safe from predators, particularly, I imagine, the one that had removed its tail.
ANOTHER BIRDCHAT NOTE: A bird bander wrote that the itinerant finches we see at our feeders are mostly new day to day. The redpolls and goldfinches you feed today will move on, being replaced by others of the same species. He wrote that he had determned this via the ID bands he attaches to bird legs. I have no confirmation of this behavior (the birds', not his). It might explain, though, why we have a couple of dozen redpolls one day, none the next, and Pine Siskins on catch-as-catch-can basis. Goldfinches are here all the time, for whatever reason. Yesterday I did see a redpoll with a splotch of white on its back, a bit of albinism. We'll see if it returns.
AND, fellow StarTrib columnist Val Cunningham wrote today to say that chickadees in her St. Paul neighborhood are beginning to sing their spring song -- feee-beee, high on the fee note, low on the bee. Chickadees were doing it here this morning as I filled feeders. It's not this sudden burst of heat -- all the way into the low teens -- that has given them voice. Birds respond to the increasng amount of daylight at this time of year to put them into the spring mood.
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